Opposition mounts against GOP historic preservation bill

By Mary Spicuzza of the Journal Sentinel


Federal Building, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

A bill proposed by Republican state lawmakers aimed at expanding property owners’ rights would have far-ranging effects on historic preservation in Milwaukee and throughout Wisconsin, opponents say.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Robert Brooks (R-Saukville) and Sen. Frank Lasee (R-De Pere), would prohibit municipalities from designating properties as historic landmarks without the consent of their owners.

It would also ban municipalities from requiring or prohibiting actions by owners related to the “preservation of special character, historic or aesthetic interest, or any other significant value of the property” without the owners’ consent.

Milwaukee’s Common Council voted Tuesday to formally oppose the proposal. The council’s vote comes amid broad opposition from historic preservationists in Milwaukee and around the state.

“I am concerned that the language in this bill eliminates any protection whatsoever for the physical manifestation of Wisconsin’s history,” Dawn McCarthy, president of the Milwaukee Preservation Alliance, told state lawmakers at a hearing on the bill last week. “Any privately owned historic landmark, and there are many, could be irreversibly altered or demolished without a public process and without public input.”

Lasee said the point of the bill provision is to ensure that owners of private property don’t have their rights trumped by the government. Property owners and public officials need to both see a benefit to a historic designation, he said.

“How would you feel if you woke up one day and found your house subject to 40 pages of rules and regulations? Burdensome regulations that require you to get permission from a government committee to improve your house, get approval for paint color, or the style and brand of windows you buy,” Lasee said in a statement.

The measure, Assembly Bill 568, is part of a package of GOP bills aimed at expanding property rights, which would also make it easier to develop dry lake beds, lessen the regulation of certain ditches and other man-made waterways, and make it easier for businesses or homeowners to get notifications from local governments about official actions that could affect their properties.

McCarthy warned the legislation would have an adverse effect on property values and remove an important economic development tool. She and others argued that municipalities should be allowed to have local control when it comes to creating and regulating their own historic districts.

“Regulating historic landmarks and districts does more than provide economic and cultural value. It protects a property owner’s investment,” she said. “It prevents your neighbor from demolishing or inappropriately altering his historic home and thus the fabric of the historic district that gives your property value.”

Brooks and Lasee called the legislation a “technical bill” aimed at quality housing in a cosponsorship memo they circulated Dec. 4. In that memo, the bill sponsors said the overall legislation was “designed to make it easier for landlords to provide Wisconsin residents with quality housing.”

“Even though this legislation delineates better business practices for landlords, it simultaneously works to ensure that tenants have access to clean, safe and affordable housing,” they wrote.

John Decker, the president of the Wisconsin Association of Historic Preservation Commissions, warned that the measure was a “radical proposal,” calling it “hastily drafted and poorly considered.”

“Allowing such ordinances to apply only with a property owner’s consent turns upside down the entire concept of land use control,” Decker wrote in a letter to lawmakers. “Placing the whim of individual property owners over the public interest is an alarming prospect, and is antithetical to ordered government and local control.”

Gary Gorman, whose Oregon, Wisconsin-based firm has done 25 development projects involving the renovation of historic buildings into apartments, hotels and other new uses, said he could see both sides of the issue.

On one hand, under the current system property owners lose some of their rights to change or demolish buildings if they are designated as historic against their wishes, Gorman said. On the other hand, the new legislation would make it more difficult to preserve historic buildings, he said.

In Milwaukee, property owners can appeal Historic Preservation Commission rulings to the Common Council.

Milwaukee Hotel

Milwaukee Hotel

That happened in connection with the downtown Marriott hotel, which opened in 2013 at 323 E. Wisconsin Ave.

The commission in 2011 allowed demolition of some historic buildings to make way for the hotel, but only if the facades were preserved and blended into the new building. That ruling also required a setback for the hotel’s upper floors.

Commission members said the setback would provide a hotel design that was more sensitive to neighboring historic structures.

The hotel’s developers said it would force a costly redesign and appealed. The council then approved the hotel plan without the setback.

Jason Stein and Tom Daykin of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

time capsule, apartment, paris, Parisian socialite and actress Marthe de Florian,

“Time Capsule” Apartment in Paris Found Untouched for 70 Years

When a 91-year-old woman died in 2010, her family discovered she had inherited an apartment in Paris from her grandmother. In 1942 she had abandoned it in perfectly preserved—and decorated—condition.

time capsule, apartment, paris, Parisian socialite and actress Marthe de Florian,

“Time Capsule” apartment of late Parisian socialite and actress Marthe de Florian – abandoned since 1942.

In 2010, a 91-year-old woman died in the south of France, leaving behind her grandmother’s apartment in Paris, which she had inherited at some point. Her family tasked auctioneer Olivier Choppin-Janvry and his team with visiting the flat in the 9th arrondissement, near the Pigalle red-light district and Opera Garnier, and inventorying its contents. When the unsuspecting experts unlocked the front door, they found it virtually untouched since before World War II. “There was a smell of old dust,” recalled Choppin-Janvry.

This deceased owner, known in the press only as Madame de Florian, had fled the vulnerable city at the outbreak of World War II as the German offensive neared.

It was 1942 and she was just 23 years old when she locked up the apartment she had inherited from her grandmother and left town. For the following 70 years, de Florian paid the rent and upkeep on the home without ever returning.

Now deemed a Parisian “Time Capsule” apartment, the woman’s heirs had decided to make an inventory of her apartment when they discovered its preserved interior and the many treasures inside.

time capsule, paris, apartment, Marthe de Florian, 1942

A thick layer of dust covers everything. But it’s fascinating to see a “day in the life” of someone from early 1900s Paris.

Under a thick film of grime, investigators found themselves transported to early 1900s Paris during the height of the Belle Epoque, when the city was celebrating its cultural renaissance and de Florian’s grandmother was the talk of the town. Books and newspapers lined the shelves, gold curtains draped the windows, and a luxurious dressing table held hairbrushes, perfumes, and candle stubs that seemed to await the return of a very glamorous noblewoman.

It was, one of the inventorying experts said, like “stumbling into the castle of Sleeping Beauty.

time capsule, paris, apartment, 1942

The interior is a time capsule of the Belle Epoque, with damask on the walls, Louis-style painted furniture, and Oriental rugs

Born in 1864, de Florian was a certain breed of courtesan known as les demimondaines, who were famous for their lavish lifestyles, partying ways, and strings of high-profile suitors. The mysterious woman sparked furious speculation online, as forums of fascinated readers dug through French genealogical records to uncover a little more about the family. These amateur historians surfaced old newspaper clippings and birth records showing de Florian’s real name was Mathilde Heloise Beaugiron, and she worked as a seamstress and bore two children before turning to acting and the more lucrative “society girl” trade.

time capsule, paris, apartment, 1942

The formal dining room, with a low-hanging chandelier over the table, wood stove, and stone sink, was still fully stocked with glassware and pots and pans.

time capsule, paris, apartment, 1942, vanity

A beautiful vanity sits under a layer of thick dust. Make-up sits waiting for the mistress to return, to no avail.

Against floral wallpaper and wainscoting, a stuffed ostrich draped with a shawl stood above two pre-war stuffed animals—a very retro-looking Mickey Mouse and Porky the Pig.

Ostrich and Mickey Mouse, paris, flat, abandoned, 1942, 2010

A stuffed ostrich and a Mickey Mouse toy dated from the WWII prewar period, found in June 2010.

The biggest surprise was a never-before-seen painting by famed 19th-century Italian artist Giovanni Boldini. The subject of the portrait, a woman perched on a lounge and shrouded in a pink satin evening gown, was 24-year-old Marthe de Florian, the apartment owner’s grandmother who was a Belle Epoque socialite, theater actress, and Boldini’s muse.

Painting by Italian artist Giovanni Boldini

Painting by Italian artist Giovanni Boldini – presumably of 24-year-old Marthe de Florian, the apartment owner’s grandmother — a Belle Epoque socialite, theater actress, and Boldini’s muse.

Boldini’s painting was without a signature and no records of the work were found in reference books to prove it was his. But art experts managed to locate a mention of the work in a memoir by the famed painter’s widow, and they dated the painting to 1898. Their suspicions were confirmed by a stack of love letters found in the apartment that were wrapped in different colored ribbons and scrawled in the hand of, among others, Boldini and 72nd Prime Minister George Clemenceau.

The painting went up for auction with an asking price of €253,000, and sold for €2.1 million after 10 bidders waged a war for the piece. “It was a magic moment. One could see that the buyer loved the painting; he paid the price of passion,” said Marc Ottav, the art specialist consulted about the painting’s authenticity. It was the highest price ever paid for one of Boldini’s works.

The location of Marthe de Florian’s apartment remains a mystery, as does her granddaughter’s true identity. But, somewhere in the 9th arrondissement, a dusty flat missing a fine Boldini painting may still remain frozen-in-time, offering a glimpse of life during the Belle Epoque.

Minneapolis’s Historic Park Ave. Neighborhood

Published in Old-House Journal December/January 2012

By Ryan Knoke | Photos by Montana Scheff | Online Exclusive

Discover the charms of this turn-of-the-century neighborhood, courtesy of two local homeowners who lead a highly popular walking tour. By Ryan Knoke | Photos by Montana Scheff | Online Exclusive


The Charles M. Harrington Mansion, one of Park Ave’s eight remaining mansions.

When Montana and I set out in search of antiques at an estate sale on a cold Thanksgiving weekend in 2003, nothing had prepared us for the “find” upon which we were about to stumble. As we pulled up to the well-preserved 1905 Colonial Revival on Minneapolis’s historic Park Avenue we instantly knew “this was going to be a good one.” But once inside, we forgot all about antiques, finding ourselves more enamored with the house than its contents. We wasted no time tracking down the nearest estate sale worker to inquire about the home’s status. As we discovered, the elderly owner had recently moved to a senior care facility and the house was up for sale. We jumped.

After closing, we visited Wendell Erickson, the 101-year-old seller, in his nursing home. His charming stories of his 72 years in the house not only sparked our interest in the home’s history, but in the history of Park Avenue in general. That led to years of extensive research on both our home and the neighborhood; from that research we eventually created what has become one of the best-attended historic walking tours in the city.

Park Avenue Highlights

Cowles Mansion

John Cowles Mansion (1923)

John Cowles Mansion (1923) 2318 Park Avenue Architect: William Channing Whitney

At the turn of the last century, Park Avenue was one of Minneapolis’s most prestigious residential streets. Thirty-five of the city’s most opulent mansions, built for the business and social elite, once lined the 10-block “Golden Mile” from the edge of downtown at 18th Street south to 28th Street. Today, only eight of these mansions remain. The next 10 blocks, between 28th and 38th streets, were home to upper-middle-class professionals. This stretch of elegant wood frame houses—each far exceeding the city’s then-average $3,000 construction price tag—remains largely intact. All 20 blocks showcase a wonderfully eclectic array of turn-of-the-century architectural styles rendered by the city’s most prolific architects.

The last grand mansion to be built on Park Avenue, this Georgian Revival was originally designed by society architect Whitney for Grain Commissioner David D. Tenney. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Tenney continued to live in the home until 1939 when she sold it to John Cowles, then publisher of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. After 44 years in the mansion, the Cowles family sold the estate in late 1983 to a nonprofit organization, marking the official end of single-family occupancy of Park Avenue’s mansions.

The Anson Brooks Mansion

Anson Brooks Mansion (1907)

Anson Brooks Mansion (1907)
2445 Park Avenue
Architect: Long and Long

This unusual Venetian Gothic palace was built for lumber baron Anson Brooks. Father-son team Long and Long (the elder designed some of the city’s most high-profile early skyscrapers, including the Richardsonian Romanesque Minneapolis City Hall) went all-out for this striking commission, adding elaborate interlaced arches, decorative parapets, and a myriad of other stunning details set against a generally Foursquare limestone hulk.

Charles M. Harrington Mansion

Charles M. Harrington Mansion (1902)

Charles M. Harrington Mansion (1902)
2540 Park Avenue
Architect: Kees and Colburn

Prominent architects Kees and Colburn designed this stylish Italian Renaissance mansion for Charles M. Harrington, president of the Van Dusen-Harrington Company, one of Minneapolis’s largest grain firms at the time. The exquisite urban estate features a wonderfully intact—and historically designated—John Bradstreet-designed interior, replete with a sumptuous array of mahogany paneling, heavy carvings, decorative plasterwork, and frescoes.

The Swan Turnblad Mansion

Swan Turnblad Mansion (1908)

Swan Turnblad Mansion (1908)
2600 Park Avenue
Architect: Boehme and Cordella

Dubbed the “Swedish Castle,” this 33-room French Chateau estate was built for Swan J. Turnblad, a Swedish immigrant who made his fortune by acquiring and transforming a struggling newspaper into the nation’s most widely circulated Swedish-language paper. To showcase his success, Turnblad built a new home, which at the time cost $1.5 million and took seven years to complete. In 1929, he donated it to the American Swedish Institute and moved across the street to the fifth floor of an elegant new Art Deco apartment-hotel, where he spent his last few years overlooking his beloved castle.

George F. Hitchcock House

George F. Hitchcock House (1890)

George F. Hitchcock House (1890)
2932 Park Avenue
Architect: Theron Potter Healy

Hailed as the “King of the Queen Anne,” Theron Potter “T.P.” Healy is Minneapolis’s most prolific master builder of Queen Anne architecture, and this impressive home—which embodies the playful, romantic style—is testament to his skill as both designer and builder. In his 20-year career, between 1886 and his death in 1906, Healy erected more than 130 structures throughout the city. Just a few blocks west of this home lies the locally and nationally designated Healy Block Historic District, a one-block cluster of 14 Healy residences representing one of the largest—and finest—surviving collections of Queen Anne architecture in Minneapolis.

George J. Reed House

George J. Reed House (1894)

George J. Reed House (1894)
3416 Park Avenue
Builder: L. E. Morris

This house’s elaborate façade—with its false double-front gables, three-story tower topped by decorative copper finial, cutaway bays, Oculus windows, belt course shingles, half-timbering, curved clapboard, fish scales, and more—typifies the fanciful Queen Anne style. Owner George Reed was a foreman for James Baxter & Son Co., the firm that contracted the stonework for the famous Washburn-Fair Oaks Mansion, one of Minneapolis’s most missed architectural treasures.

The Reinhold Zeglin House

Reinhold Zeglin House (1905)

Reinhold Zeglin House (1905)
3621 Park Avenue
Architect: Barclay Cooper

This stately Colonial Revival was originally designed and built for Anson Morey by Master Builder Barclay Cooper. In addition to being a highly skilled and respected contractor, Cooper was an early Minneapolis resident who founded—among other notable civic and religious institutions—the exclusive, fraternal Builders Exchange of Minneapolis. In 1908, the Reinhold Zeglin family purchased the home. Zeglin owned and operated the Coney Island Hotel and Resort on nearby Lake Waconia’s “Coney Island of the West,” a once popular summer destination for Twin Cities society.

Samuel Glading house

Samuel Glading House (1898)

Samuel Glading House (1898)
3624 Park Avenue
Architect: James H. Record

A beautifully preserved example of a transitional Queen Anne-to-Classical Revival style, this home was originally built for real estate developer Samuel Glading. While Glading was responsible for the development of five other homes on this block—three in collaboration with architect James Record—he chose this as his own. Unfortunately, following Mrs. Glading’s untimely death in late 1899, Mr. Glading was reportedly too heartbroken to stay in the home, and sold it to the Harry Gramps family, who remained until the 1950s. Decades later, Glading remarried and made his way back to the street he once had a hand in developing when in 1930 he purchased a home five blocks north.

Boca Raton: Bid Adieu to La Vieille Maison

Seabass with lobster sauce from Chef Christian Potvin, formerly of La Vieille Maison

Seabass with lobster sauce from Chef Christian Potvin, formerly of La Vieille Maison

Is it any consolation that there are idiots everywhere? Not really.

Well, another one bites the dust. This time in Boca Raton, Florida. Apparently this 1927 beauty was too “vieille” for Boca Raton.

Amidst a throng of people who desperately wanted to save the place, the Grand Dame fell to the wrecking ball in November of last year.

“It’s a crime,” said Marvin Kaplan, a patron for three decades.  “Nobody should have destroyed it.”

Instead of designating it as a historic structure, the city building inspectors determined it would be “impossible to restore”.

“Impossible to restore”? Maybe parts of Detroit are “impossible to restore”, but nonetheless, people are restoring them! (That will be in another post). Want to see what “impossible to restore” looks like? See below:

La Vieille Maison, Boca Raton, Florida

La Vieille Maison, Boca Raton, Florida: Impossible to restore?

“Everybody wanted to save it,” Boca Raton Historical Society executive director Mary Csar said. “Many people had ties to the restaurant because they had dined there.

“But it was just in such bad shape,” Csar said.

I mean, really. A little lathe and plaster, paint, and we would be back in business, n’est-ce pas?

From “The Coastal Star”:

“La Vieille Maison was known as the grand dame in fine dining. Nothing matched its ambiance. Waiters in tuxedos gave menus with prices only to gentlemen. Ladies never saw them. The gentlemen were required to wear jackets. Classical music played in the background, blending with the glow of candlelight.

The menu featured such delicacies as caviar with buckwheat blini and fois gras with lingonberry preserves.

The filet mignon was dressed with béarnaise or bordelaise. The escargot, lobster bisque, steak tartare and sweetbreads matched the culinary delights offered by the finest French restaurants in Paris.

Owner Leonce Picot hired only career waiters and captains, who remembered the wine choices of patrons and how they preferred to have their food cooked. They were polished professionals who knew how to prepare and serve crepes Suzette tableside.

“Each waiter would each speak three or four languages,” patron Kathy Assaf recalled. “We would phone ahead and say what language we wanted spoken at the table.”

That was convenient for her husband, Ron Assaf, the Sensormatic founder who did business in 100 countries. La Vieille Maison was the perfect restaurant to entertain foreign executives when they came to Boca Raton.

“We could have our food cooked in special ways,” Kathy Assaf said.  “They would accommodate us in any way.”

The two-story restaurant shaded by massive live oaks had several private dining rooms in addition to the main dining room on the first floor.

Some rooms were the perfect size for business groups and large family occasions. Other more intimate rooms in the old house were a favorite spot for marriage proposals.

The Kaplans always requested the Goldfish Room, where the table overlooked a koi pond.

“It was probably the best French restaurant within 50 miles,”  Kaplan said. “When it closed, I didn’t want to go to another French restaurant. It was that good. I wanted to savor the memories.”

The 2006 closing came after Picot received several offers to buy his property at 770 E. Palmetto Park Road. A historic designation for the house would have prevented its demolition.”

La Vieille Maison, recently

La Vieille Maison, recently

and here’s the kicker:

“I used to think it would be nice to have that designation. But boy, I’m glad I didn’t do it — I’d never be able to sell it,” Picot was quoted as saying five years ago. He received $2.6 million for the property.

The 1927 house was built by Thomas Giles, an engineer for architect Addison Mizner, in the same Mediterranean Revival style that Mizner had chosen for the distinctive homes that he built in Old Floresta two years before.

The Giles family lived in the house for 25 years until it became the Por La Mar Apartments in 1953 and later a real estate office before Picot’s purchase.

The current property owner, TJCV Land Trust, hasn’t requested city permission as yet to construct a new building at the site, Woika said.”

If anyone has any photos of happier times at La Vielle Maison, please send me an email at preservation@usa.com.

Giles House, Boca Raton, Florida, in happier times

Giles House, Boca Raton, Florida, in happier times

Rocker Billy Squier helps Wellesley High turn out the lights

Wellesley High School, Wellesley, MA, Built in 1938

Wellesley High School, Wellesley, MA, Built in 1938

When I heard that my beloved Alma Mater was coming down, I was distraught, but this time not really for historic preservation reasons. Although the school was built in 1938, and is technically “Art Deco”, there are undoubtedly more beautiful examples of that style around. It’s a solid, no-nonsense brick building, and certainly serviceable as a high school. [I guess I should add that by West Coast standards, it’s pretty fabulous, and “very New England”.]

But that school gets me on an emotional level that few buildings do, solely from all the amazing memories attached to the place. For example, on “Senior Skip Day”, when I threw a water balloon into a classroom, and it whizzed past the teacher’s head and went straight out an open window, not exploding on anything! In fact, the teacher didn’t even know it happened. But all the students saw it and completely broke out laughing.

Or, the time that someone switched the gas hoses with the water hoses in science class. That was a thrill! Or the time we shellacked Mr. Scafati’s chalk. What a hoot! He wrote on the board, but nothing happened! [These were simpler times, to be sure…]

Apparently quite a few other people felt the same way I did, and Jeanie Goddard, a retired Wellesley High English teacher, decided to put together a “last hurrah” celebration for everyone.

Now as luck would have it, on my last visit to Wellesley, in June, some friends and I decided to take our own little trip down memory lane ~ and thank God we did. Walking through that high school was like a trip back in time. Virtually nothing had changed, except us.

From “The Swellesley Report“, November 27, 2011

Billy Squier

Billy Squier

“Rock singer and guitarist Billy Squier, a 1968 graduate of Wellesley High School, helped the school “turn out the lights” Saturday night, playing old hits like “In the Dark” and “Everybody Wants You” before a packed house at the WHS auditorium. Tickets to the event sold out quickly after The Swellesley Report noted on Nov. 4 that Squier would be appearing and local press tripped over each other in recent weeks to interview the singer.

Squier appeared by himself on stage, first sharing a few stories about his days in Wellesley, including a run in with the law (“an off campus incident”) that nearly put the kibosh on a school play he was starring in.”

My friend Ellen Dixon and I used to walk home from school, right by Billy’s house. This was our “brush with fame”, although we didn’t know it at the time.

[From Boston.com] Turn Out the Lights, a week long celebration of “the old” Wellesley Senior High School, began on November 20th with a presentation in the Wakelin Room at the Wellesley Free Library.

“We wanted to acknowledge what wonderful things happened in this building for 73 years,” said organizer Jeanie Goddard, a retired Wellesley High English teacher, “and all the terrific alumni who have studied there and gone on to glorious adventures, and just this sense of place that we all have. All the haunts have been shared by generations of Wellesley High students.”

The library presentation included a video depicting the architectural history of the school, which was built in 1938. Other events include a panel discussion on US foreign policy with distinguished alumni in the school’s auditorium.

On the 22nd, there was a special acknowledgement of former football players, cheerleaders, band members and twirlers during the traditional Thanksgiving game against Needham High, which started at 10 a.m. Thursday at Hunnewell Field; a dance featuring “music through the decades’’ in the school’s cafeteria on Friday evening; and an open house and yard sale at the school Saturday from noon to 4 p.m. that included old uniforms, locker fronts, pompoms, and banners for sale.

For photos and details on the celebration, visit www.wellesleycelebrateseducation.org.

The Winchester Mystery House

Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California

Winchester Mystery House, San Jose, California

“Winchester Mystery House™ is an extravagant maze of Victorian craftsmanship – marvelous, baffling, and eerily eccentric, to say the least. Tour guides must warn people not to stray from the group or they could be lost for hours! Countless questions come to mind as you wander through the mansion – such as, what was Mrs. Winchester thinking when she had a staircase built that descends seven steps and then rises eleven?

Some of the architectural oddities may have practical explanations. For example, the Switchback Staircase, which has seven flights with forty four steps, and rises only about nine feet, since each step is just two inches high. Mrs. Winchester’s arthritis was quite severe in her later years, and the stairway may have been designed to accommodate her disability.” [From The Winchester Mystery House Website]

Sarah Winchester

Sarah Winchester

In 1862, Sarah married William Wirt Winchester, son of Oliver Fisher Winchester, Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and manufacturer of the famous Winchester repeating rifle. The couple’s life together was happy, and they enjoyed the best of New England society. However, in 1866, their young daughter, Annie developed a childhood disease (marasmus) and died. Sarah never fully recovered.

When her husband contracted tuberculosis and died in March of 1881, Sarah was beyond despair. As a result of her husband’s death, Sarah inherited an unimaginable $20 million and nearly half ownership in the ultra successful Winchester manufacturing company. Her share resulted in a $1000 per day salary (the equivalent of $20,000 per day in today’s dollars).

Completely distraught by these tragedies, Sarah consulted a medium in Boston, who claimed that a curse had been put upon the Winchester family ~ by the ghosts of those gunned down by the Winchester repeating rifle. The medium told her the that only way to calm the vengeful spirits was to use her $20 million inheritance to build a home that would confuse the apparitions. She instructed Sarah to continually add on to her house, and that if the renovations ever stopped, the ghosts would claim her life.

Winchester Mystery House

Winchester Mystery House

In 1884, Sarah Winchester purchased an unfinished farm house just three miles west of San Jose – and over the next thirty-eight years she produced the sprawling complex we know today as the Winchester Mystery House.

Winchester routinely held séances to get building instructions for the next day from the spirit world, from spirits like caretaker Clyde. Clyde still walks the halls, according to local psychic Annette Martin, who claims she has unlocked the secrets of the Winchester house by channeling Clyde. He communicates to her through scribbles. Martin says that Winchester told Clyde to stay and take care of the house.

“He comes here to remember the happy, happy times with Sarah and her wonderful organ music,” Martin adds.

When Sarah Winchester died in 1922, the construction stopped. Consequently, all the mysteries of the home may never truly be understood — its odd twists and turns, or doors leading to nowhere and stairs headed to the ceiling.

How would you like to wander through 110 of the 160 rooms of this Victorian mansion, and maybe bump into her on the tour? The house is full of unexplainable details and features, just a few of which are listed below:

  • The cost: the house cost about $5,500,000 to build back at the turn of the 20th century
  • The size: the house was originally situated on a tract of land measuring approximately 161.919 acres. Most of this land was sold off at a later date; the house itself covers just 4 acres. The original version of the house featured seven complete stories. Unfortunately, the earthquake of 1906 brought the house down to four stories, and two functioning basements.
  • The paint: In order to paint the entire home once it would take more than 20,000 gallons of paint.
Interior of the Winchester Mystery House

Interior of the Winchester Mystery House

Oddities inside the Winchester Mystery House include:

  • more than 1,257 window frames
  • more than 10,000 windowpanes
  • more than 467 doorways are evident within the house
  • more than 950 doors (not including cabinets)
  • more than 40 bedrooms in the house
  • 40 different staircases
  • 17 chimneys are still intact within the house, with the remnants of two others still visible

The unexplainable is waiting for you inside the Winchester Mystery House, so get ready for an adventure.

Visitors may begin touring the house at 9:00 AM. Hours fluctuate throughout the year, so be sure to contact the house administration for more details. Tour prices range from $20 to $30. Annual passes are also available. For more information on the Winchester Mystery House, please visit www.winchestermysteryhouse.com.

The Winchester Mystery house is located at 525 South Winchester Boulevard in San Jose, California.

For a great page about ghosts and orbs captured in visitor photos, go to Ghost in my Suitcase.

Update: Johnie’s Broiler Lives!

Bob's Big Boy Broiler, Downey, CA

Bob's Big Boy Broiler, Downey, CA ~ Resurrected!

From Harvey’s to Johnie’s to Bob’s Big Boy

DOWNEY, CA. Harvey’s Broiler was founded in 1958 by Harvey Ortner. He and his wife Minnie purchased the former poultry farm property located on Firestone Boulevard and Old River School Road in 1950 and hired architect Paul B. Clayton to design the restaurant. It was a superb example of Googie style architecture, also known as populuxe or Doo-Wop. This was a form of modern and/or futurist architecture, influenced by car culture and the Atomic Age. Googie originated in Southern California during the late 1940s and continued into the mid-1960s. The style lent itself well to motels, coffee houses and bowling alleys.

Harvey’s epitomized the movement with a drive-in canopy in the shape of a boomerang and recessed lighting that beamed down like a UFO. The drive-in was somewhat of a fashion show as it could easily accommodate as many as 100 of the sexiest cars of its time. The flamboyant and famous signage was a landmark for the City of Downey, as it was strikingly visible to drivers and onlookers on the main drag of Firestone Boulevard.

Harvey’s was renamed to Johnie’s Broiler in 1968. Johnie’s had one “n” instead of two because it was named after an interim owner with the last name Johnson. Johnson’s ownership was short lived. He did not meet the terms of the purchase agreement, and the restaurant reverted back to Harvey’s, but it was too late. The sign had already been changed from Harvey’s to Johnie’s. Christos Smyrniotis leased it from Harvey Ortner in 1970 according to city construction permits, eventually purchased it, and owned it through 2006.

Johnie’s is considered one of the birthplaces of car culture in Southern California. It has been featured in magazines, commercials and movies. A scene from the biopic “What’s Love Got to Do with it” (1993) where Ike (Laurence Fishburne) and Tina (Angela Bassett) have a massive fight was filmed at Johnie’s.

Bob's Big Boy Broiler, Downey, CA

Bob's Big Boy Broiler, Downey, CA - Before (inset) and After

On New Year’s Eve 2001, Johnie’s closed its doors. In early 2002, the property was leased to a used car dealership, but the sign, structure, and drive-in canopy remained. Where cars were once displayed for pride, they were now displayed for cash. Fortunately, the dealer’s lease ended in August 2006. Unfortunately, a 99 year lease was signed with a new tenant, Ardas Yanik.

Sunday, Jan. 7, 2007 was a tragic day. Horrified onlookers watched as bulldozers illegally chopped into and demolished the cherished landmark. Yanik reportedly did not get permits for the demolition, so there was no advance warning to save Johnie’s. The locals dialed 9-1-1, and the cops showed up in force. The demolition was stopped, but the damage was done. The main structure was heavily damaged, but the drive-in canopy remained, as well as the large neon sign, which became a symbol of hope and inspiration for a rebirth.

Ardas Yanik reportedly “pleaded no contest to three misdemeanor charges stemming from the demolition and had his lease forfeited.”

Shocked supporters re-grouped and the Mod-Com (Adriene Biondo=Chair), Friends of Johnie’s (Analisa Ridenour=President) and Coalition to Save & Rebuild Harvey’s Broiler (Kevin Preciado=Lead) sprang into action. They attended hearings, city council meetings and got the word out that Johnie’s needed Downey’s help. Because of their devotion to preserve Downey’s history, complete demolition was held off until Bob’s Big Boy came to the rescue. Downey came together as a family to rebuild Johnie’s in all its former glory.

Today, it is a work of art. Take a look at the before and after photos. You will see that the renovation was true to its historic roots. Please visit their website at http://www.bobsbigboybroiler.com/.

Bob's Big Boy Broiler, Interior. Downey, CA

Bob's Big Boy Broiler, Interior. Downey, CA

The best thing you can do to support its continued operation is to stop in for a burger or a shake really soon!

For more on the history, see Johnie’s Broiler on Wikipedia.

To see our prior blog post on The Broiler, click here.

More on Johnie’s as a filming location:

In Robert Altman’s 1994 film, “SHORT CUTS,” Lily Tomlin played a waitress who worked at the same Johnie’s Broiler. This Downey café was also the scene of the 1995 Diane Keaton film, “UNSTRUNG HEROES,” starring Michael (“Kramer”) RichardsAndie MacDowell, as well as for 1994’s “REALITY BITES” (starring Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke). In 1999, the diner posed as a bus station for an episode of TV’s “The X-Files.”

Historic Preservation, San Jose, CA

The block you see below is now almost completely vacant. Courtesy of Google maps, we can see all of the structures that used to exist, dating all the way back to 1898. These were once grand Victorian homes, full of real people with real stories. Right smack in the middle of it all was a 1903 Colonial Revival Church. Now, thanks to our unenforced vacant building ordinances, they are gone.

Top View of the Delmas-Park Parcel

Top View of the Delmas-Park Parcel

This is the current situation in San Jose, California. If you are a vacant historic building, your days are numbered. Just since moving to my neighborhood in February, 2010, I have witnessed 2 suspicious fires to vacant buildings, one of which was slated for inclusion in the National Register, 3 needless teardowns of Victorians, and plenty of other troubling activities.

Delmas Church, Before

Delmas Church, Before. This was a Colonial Revival Church built by then pastor Reverend Emil Meyer in 1903, as First German Evangelical Lutheran Church

Delmas Church, After

Delmas Church, After

Bauer House 201-203 Delmas Ave, San Jose, CA

Bauer House 201-203 Delmas Ave, San Jose, CA

A suspicious fire on March 23, 2010 consumed the 1903 church on Delmas Avenue. After the discovery of asbestos, the fire investigation was delayed. There has been no news about the cause since.

The church was to be saved and restored, and put on the National Historic Register. The fire changed all that. Sadly, after the church burned, all of the surrounding vacant Victorians were unceremoniously torn down, one after the other. They had been slated for demolition by the owner of the parcel, Mark Robson and Delmas Park LLC.

The Unfortunate Victims
There will never be another 1898 Queen Anne Victorian at the corner of Delmas and Park Avenues. [See below].

German immigrant Louis Bauer acquired the lot at the corner of Delmas and Park Avenue (201-203 Delmas) in 1898 and built his Queen Anne style home. He added a store several years later.

Bauer was a well-known and respected community member who owned a popular saloon on the Alameda among other investments. Before living in this neighborhood myself, I had watched his poor home languish for 10 years on the corner.

Widow Mary Kerr bought the 253 Delmas lot in 1901. She hired architect William Klinkert and contractor D. A. Charteier to design and build her six-room, $1200 home.

Kerr House, 253 Delmas Ave

Kerr House, 253 Delmas Ave

A newspaper article featured her home as an example of the pretty homes being built in the district.

Peschel House, 255 Delmas Ave

Peschel House, 255 Delmas Ave

John Peschal bought the 255 Delmas lot in 1904. His contractor was the firm of Baron and Woehl. Peschal was a clerk for the popular downtown saloon, “The Tower”. Although all of these buildings could have been moved and salvaged, they were not.

A few blocks away, River Street is being revitalized. Little Italy San Jose could have used some nice Victorians for filling in blank spots. Check them out on Facebook at Little Italy San Jose.

The latest victim?

Only a few blocks away, JNSJ Roofing Co‎. was the former tenant of this cute little 1915 Victorian at 691 San Carlos Street, San Jose. Take a good look, because it is no more.

691 San Carlos Street, San Jose, CA

691 San Carlos Street, San Jose, CA. Before.

A four-alarm fire burned the two-story building on Sunday afternoon, June 13th. The blaze was reported at 12:30 p.m. at 691 San Carlos Street. Firefighters declared the flames under control by about 2:40 p.m.

I wish I could end this post on a positive note, but I can’t. If you have vacant historic buildings in your neighborhood, and you don’t want to see “demolition by neglect”, contact your city councilmember.

691 San Carlos Street. After.

691 San Carlos Street. After. Photo Credit: "smokeshowing" on Flickr.

Let them know you support new laws to keep abandoned buildings secure and protected from fires.

UPDATE: 1/1/2011: The little Victorian at 691 San Sarlos is being rebuilt, and I’m happy to report it looks as though they are restoring it, with historic character intact!

More recent “suspicious” fires…….

Houghton Donner House
The Mansion burned down July 19th, 2007 under “suspicious” circumstances.  Preservation Action Council of San Jose had repeatedly made the City aware that it was being broken into and used by vagrants.

The Houghton-Donner House, After

It was owned Barry Swenson Builders who had proposed building a 200+ unit residential tower on the site.  A nonprofit housing organization was working to relocate and rehabilitate the house and use it for offices. We blogged about this here.

It is worthy of note that on April 26th, 2010 the following memo was presented to the Mayor. “Approval of an ordinance amending Chapter 17.38 – Neglected Vacant Houses Ordinance”

Read the details here:


Apparently this ordinance didn’t do a thing to stop the destruction of all the above mentioned historic structures.

Johnie’s Broiler rises from the ashes

sign only

Johnie’s at night

About the Broiler

[From LA Conservancy and Roadside Peek]

Designed by Paul B. Clayton, Johnie’s Broiler opened in 1958 as Harvey’s Broiler. It was a superb example of Googie style architecture, with a lighted boomerang-shaped drive-in canopy that could accommodate 100 cars, and flamboyant signage visible to drivers traveling along Firestone Boulevard.

In 2001, the coffee shop/car hop closed down and proceeded to become a used car lot a year later. When the changeover occurred, much of the interior of Johnie’s was destroyed. But the building, carhop area, and signage remained.

After tremendous support from the Friends of Johnie’s and the Los Angeles Conservancy’s Modern Committee, the California Historic Resources Commission voted unanimously to include Johnie’s Broiler in the Register of Historic Places. Placement is contingent on the property owner’s support and agreement, which was not received from Smyrniotis.

Johnie's waitress on rollerskates

Johnie’s waitress on rollerskates

According to the January 8, 2007 issue of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Smyrniotis’ lessee filed a request in October 2006 to tear down the building with plans for a small retail strip center. The request was denied due to deficiencies, including the lack of an environmental impact report.

2007 began on a sour note. On January 7, 2007, a couple of bulldozers suddenly appeared on site and started razing the carhop area and structure. By the time concerned citizens contacted the authorities, it was too late. The carhop and a good portion of the restaurant area had already been demolished.

The police stopped the demolition due to lack of permit.

For those who stood by the remains of Johnie’s the evening of January 7, 2007, the smell of the demo was undeniable and unforgettable. The sign still stood, strong as ever as it faced Firestone Boulevard defiantly. But the aura of sadness permeated the air, as residents, fans of Johnie’s, and onlookers stared at the what was left, trying to understand and determine whether this was now farewell.


Interior shot

Interior shot

Many current and former residents remember both Harvey’s and Johnie’s Broiler fondly. One patron remembers cruising Harvey’s in 1960-1963 after graduating from Lynwood High in ’63 and tasting the hot chocolate on a cold night and even the gravy fries. She remembers doing “the cruise” which was a roundabout from Long Beach Blvd and Compton Blvd, taking them from Jerry’s BBQ north to South Gate “where we would end up at the donut shop on Tweedy Blvd.”  They would then make their way to A&W at Tweedy and Atlantic. Then everybody headed for Harvey’s.


04.10.2008 – The news is official that Johnie’s Broiler in Downey will now be replaced by Bob’s Big Boy.  A long term lease has been agreed upon between Bob’s Big Boy and Johnie’s owner Smyrniotis, 15 months after Johnie’s was partially demolished illegally by a lessee. A historic preservation consultant has been hired to determine what pieces of Johnie’s are still salvageable, including the fat boy sign.

Coalition members (l-r) Kevin Preciado, George Redfox and son Jake, Analisa Ridenour and son Holden, John Biondo, Adriene Biondo, and Marcello Vavala. Photo by John Eng.

Coalition members (l-r) Kevin Preciado, George Redfox and son Jake, Analisa Ridenour and son Holden, John Biondo, Adriene Biondo, and Marcello Vavala. Photo by John Eng.

Good news and many thanks from all Harvey’s and Johnie’s Broiler fans to those who helped make this happen and keep the spirit of Johnie’s alive, including the Friends of Johnie’s, the Coalition to Rebuild Harvey’s, and the Modern Committee of the Los Angeles Conservancy.

Many thanks to Adriene Biondo for the alert to this update as well as her tireless efforts working with the local preservation groups, city officials, and the public towards this successful outcome.

Work progresses on the new Bob’s Big Boy Broiler in Downey

06.25.09: Downey, CA: Bob has arrived! The 12 foot vintage Bob is hoisted up on the roof of the Broiler as the 3rd generation takes shape.

05.05.08: Torrance, CA – Congratulations to Adriene Biondo, Analisa, and Kevin Preciado for winning the California Preservation Foundation President’s Award at the foundation’s conference in Napa in late April for their tireless work on Johnie’s Broiler. Well deserved!

This place matters

The New National Trust Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

The New National Trust Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Help The National Trust for Historic Preservation build a photo mosaic of their new headquarters building in Washington, DC by uploading a photo today! Each picture uploaded contributes.

View the mosaic!

Upload a photo of a place that matters to you!

This Place Matters showcases the diverse places that matter to all of us. People from across the country are honoring their favorite places, making a call to protect, enhance and enjoy the places that matter to all of us.

Upload a photo of a place that matters to you TODAY to contribute to this mosaic.

Ghost Signs

Description: Ghost signs are faded, painted signs, at least 50 years old, on an exterior building wall heralding a product, trademark or a clue to the building’s history.

Capital Cafe sign, Platteville, WI

Capital Cafe sign, Platteville, WI

Also called fading ads, or ghost ads, these works of art have often been preserved by being hidden by a neighboring building. When the neighboring building is torn down, ghost signs are often found on the side of the remaining building.

Restored Maxwell House ad - Pennington Grocery Co., Pauls Valley, OK

Maxwell House ad - Pennington Grocery Co., Pauls Valley, OK

Some towns have tried to preserve their ghost signs, while others have merely not destroyed them. They provide a window into the past, not only for advertisers, but historic preservationists.

Kennedy Biscuit Lofts, Cambridge, MA

Kennedy Biscuit Lofts, Cambridge, MA

I actually had the pleasure of living in a building with 2 ghost signs. The Kennedy Biscuit Lofts in Cambridge, MA was once home to the famous Fig Newton cookie. In fact, upon moving in, we were presented with a tin of Fig Newtons as a housewarming gift. Most exciting of all, however, was the “Kennedy Biscuit Works” and “Kennedy Steam Bakery” ghost signs on the building.

Kennedy Steam Bakery Ghost Sign, Cambridge, MA

Kennedy Steam Bakery Ghost Sign, Cambridge, MA

Fig Newtons were first produced in 1891 by the National Biscuit Company, now known as Nabisco. They have a long and interesting history. Nabisco states that these cookies were named after the town of Newton, MA. Neither the taste, shape, or size of Fig Newtons has changed in over 100 years.

Vintage Product Tins

Vintage Product Tins

The town of Newton celebrated the 100th anniversary of Fig Newtons April 10th, 1991: “The 100th anniversary of a cookie may not be considered a milestone for the history books, but residents of Newton believe the Fig Newton’s first century is something to celebrate. Newton is an all-American city, and the Fig Newton is an all-American cookie,” said Linda Plaut, the city’s director of cultural affairs. “We’re all proud of that.” …The Newton, as it was originally called, was created in 1891 at the Kennedy Biscuit Works in Cambridgeport, now known as Cambridge, said Mark Gutsche, a Nabisco spokesman.”

Forney House falls, and 150 years of history is replaced by a bank

The Forney House, prior to demolition, Milltown, NJ

The Forney House, prior to demolition, Milltown, NJ

MILLTOWN, NEW JERSEY: Last Friday marked the end of the fight to save The Forney House (circa 1860’s) in Milltown, NJ. And why was this old beauty torn down? To build a Valley National Bank.

Just what we need. A bank.

Even scarier is that the exact same thing happened to the Victorian across the street ~ which was demolished to build ~ you guessed it ~ a bank. In a town of 7,500 residents, it would seem that 4 banks are enough.

HISTORY: In 1907 Dr. Norman Forney Sr. came to Milltown with his horse and carriage and began practicing medicine. The home where he lived and practiced was built in the 1860s by John Evans, father of Milltown’s first Mayor, John C. Evans.

Dr. Forney Sr. was later joined by his sons, Norman Jr. and Charles. They owned and operated the clinic in this building until 1980. The house was then sold to Dr. Sharma, who continued to practice there and rented the house to tenants as recently as 2007.

The building was found “Eligible” for listing on the New Jersey and National Registers of Historic Places by the State Historic Preservation Office, which also deemed it eminently “rehabbable” in 2008.

[From the Milltown Voice] “Resident Michael Shakarjian, president of the citizens’ group, said the demolition of the house could have been prevented if there had been greater scrutiny of the process on the part of elected officials.

Shakarjian particularly called out [Mayor Gloria] Bradford, saying she did not do anything to help matters during the process when he sent her a letter outlining what he, and 400 others who signed the letter, perceived as a failure to follow protocols on the part of the federal Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), whose approval was necessary before the bank could move forward.”

“She does not think it’s a serious situation,” Shakarjian said of Bradford. “That’s what the problem is — none of these people think it’s serious.”

A work crew begins the demolition of the Forney House last Friday

A work crew begins the demolition of the Forney House last Friday

“It was definitely sad to see it come down,” said Harto, a member of the town’s Historic Preservation Committee. “If we stepped in on that, we would just be opening ourselves to a lawsuit,” Harto said. “It wouldn’t have helped at this point, but it would have helped 20 years ago when Dr. [Bhudev] Sharma started neglecting the property.”

“Since Valley National Bank (VNB) is a nationally chartered bank, it required approval from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and also was required to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. This review approval process was required since the Forney House was eligible for the National Register. Unfortunately, the bank and the property owner did not approach this consultation in a manner befitting a public process and sought to force its demands on those involved.” [Preservation NJ website]

What can we do about this?

Email the whitehouse to ask that we strengthen the Section 106 Laws, so that this doesn’t happen again. Better yet, ask that Historic Preservation Ordinances be mandatory.